Full House Reading Challenge – The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Genre : War

Narrative Style: First Person, Non-chronological

Published: 1956

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis:  Fowler is a cynical journalist following the battles of the French against the Vietminh. Pyle is the naïve American who has idealistic ideas about how to end the war. When Pyle is murdered, everyone is suspect, including Fowler. As Fowler recounts his story of meeting Pyle, it transpires his own motives are less than pure.

Reading Challenges: The Full House Reading Challenge – Less than 250 pages.

I can’t say that I fully understood the political situation in this novel. I haven’t very much knowledge of the Vietnam War but Greene paints his picture in a very human way, looking at individual motivation and personality so it is relatively easy to follow.

As with other Greene novels I have read, motivation is nothing if not complicated. Fowler is attempting to keep himself on the side lines. But he finds it harder and harder to remain uninvolved. His relationship with Pyle is complicated by the fact that Pyle’s first act is to steal Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful mistress.

The story unfolds in flashbacks after Pyle’s death and the reader slowly realises that while it is true that Fowler did not kill Pyle, he is also not completely innocent. Fowler cannot let Phuong go. Pyle has to be removed from the picture. The novel shows how complicated personal and political motivation can be.

The one thing that made me a little uncomfortable was the way Phuong is passed between the men. I’m not accusing Greene of sexism or anything. I’m sure it is an apt description of the way Vietnamese women were treated by Western men.  But nonetheless, it made the novel a little less enjoyable for me.

All in all, an interesting novel that made me think about war, about the personal and the political and about relationships in general. Definitely worth a read.

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Full House Reading Challenge – Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Genre: LGBT, Family, History, Bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2003

Format: Kindle

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre Over 500 pages.

This has been on my list for a long time so when it came up for £0.99 on my Kindle, I jumped at it. I’m not really sure what I expected from it (I’d read The Virgin Suicides and had been suitably weirded out by the tone and subject matter) but the story of Calliope / Cal wasn’t it. That isn’t a criticism. I couldn’t have possibly imagined anything as wildly exciting and interesting as the novel actually is.

The story actually starts long before Cal’s birth, on a completely different continent. Admittedly, I know very little about recent Greek history but the details supplied by Eugenides seemed to make sense. And as ever, with really evocative writing, it made me want to find out more. The boat trip to America and the treatment by the American authorities were also emotionally described and I really felt for Lefty and Desdemona (Cal’s grandparents).

Although this novel is described as being about Cal’s transformation from Calliope to Cal, it is a long time before we actually get to this part of the story. Hints are dropped and events alluded to but the main story moves through Cal’s grandparents to parents and then to the present day in order to explain the presence of the genetic mutation that causes all of Cal’s biological problems. There was no sense of impatience on my part though. No detail felt superfluous. The beginning of the novel in particular is a story beautifully told.

Later, it becomes more sensational and a little like a bad TV movie at times. Cal’s hermaphroditism is eventually discovered and he is taken to a doctor who is excited by the possibility of such an exciting case study. Cal is displayed and photographed in a way that seems just as seedy as later on when Cal has run away and ends up in a freak show with other transsexuals at various stages of transition. There is a certain element of magical realism in this part of the novel as Cal tries to come to terms with a new identity. It reminded me of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus when Fevvers lives with other freaks such as Sleeping Beauty.

What was pleasing was that Eugenides doesn’t make it straightforward for Cal who feels there is nowhere that he fit. Not male fully or female, not able to fit in with the intersex community, Cal was a little lost. In the present of the novel, Cal is working through a possible romance. Having revealed the entirety of his family history, he was ready at the end, to reveal his body to his lover. It felt like the right place to leave the story with the future possibilities wide open.

 

 

 

Full House Reading Challenge – Americana by Ray Davies

Genre: Autobiography / Memoir

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5

Format: Hardback

Published: 2013

Synopsis: Ray Davies discusses his relationship with America at various points in The Kinks career. The narrative moves from the very start of The Kinks career and their banning from America to the botched robbery that saw Davies shot and re-evaluating his relationship with the states. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge.:  Autobiography / Memoir

I’d been meaning to read this for a while. Not only do I really enjoy The Kinks music but I knew from reading X-Ray, Davies’ earlier autobiography, that it would be well-written and interesting.  It’s no secret that Davies is a brilliant raconteur; you only have to listen to The Kinks songs to know that so all in all I was looking forward to it.

It did not disappoint. It isn’t really a conventional straight from A to B sort of autobiography. Ray moves from descriptions of his life in New Orleans at the time leading up to his shooting to various points in The Kinks career, touring and recording in America. It was an interesting perspective, showing all the good and the bad about touring in a rock band and trying to keep relationships together.

Ray was willing to examine his own behaviour and to describe mistakes as well as triumphs. The mood moves from great highs – triumphant shows, hit albums – to the low of lying in hospital after the botched robbery that saw him shot. He examines it all with the same critical eye.

The only thing I found a little disappointing was that he didn’t really examine the relationship with his brother, Dave. While the difficulties of this relationship are mentioned, I might have expected more insight into the problems, more detail about the nature of their problems. Of course, I understand fully why this may be difficult for Davies to talk about and it’s not for me to decide what he should talk about but I felt it was a gap in the narrative.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable read. Davies was willing to laugh at himself and also was candid about the difficulties he suffered and the relationships he lost. It was touching, amusing and informative in equal measure. Well worth a read, even for the casual fan.

Full House Reading Challenge – The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller

Genre: Romance

Narrative Style: A mix of first person, third person, and letters.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1992

Synopsis: A writer is presented with the diaries of Francesca Johnson by her children. They detail the brief affair that she had with Robert Kincaid who came to photograph the covered bridges of Madison County. It shows the sacrifice she made by staying with her family. The writer promises to tell the story. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Made into a movie.

I read this because I really enjoyed the film. Romance is not really my thing but I remembered crying at the film so I thought that maybe the book would be as emotional. Instead, I found it sentimental and slightly irritating.

At the beginning, there is a preface explaining how the writer came by this story when Francesca’s children brought her journals to him. This makes it feel like you are reading a true story and I admit, this made me like the story more. It also explained some of the worst excesses of the text – Kincaid’s pseudo hippy talk, for example – as he was working from real people. However, about halfway through, I decided to investigate whether it was true or not and it isn’t. I admit, my impressions of Waller as a writer went down from this point.

Looking at the Goodreads reviews of this book shows that it completely splits opinion. There were a whole raft of one star and five star reviews. I don’t really understand this book inspiring either extreme love or extreme hatred (and some of the one star reviews are pretty angry). It left me feeling empty. I felt little sympathy for either party.

Of course, in the film you have Clint Eastwood (who easily embodies this sort of masculinity) and Meryl Streep, both capable of making an okay story into something special through their performances. Things that had niggled only a little after the movie became downright irritating after the book. Why was it that Francesca had to sacrifice her happiness and stay with her family and  then spent all her time holding onto the few things that reminded her of Robert. The whole ‘last cowboy’ and Kincaid as the end of an evolutionary line of masculinity was irritating as well. Presumably this is the type of man Waller would have liked to be: no ties or responsibility but with the secret of a lost love in his past to explain his solitariness.

At the end of the day, the best thing I can say about this book is that it didn’t take long to read.

 

Full House Reading Challenge – Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Genre: Adventure, Classics

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1864

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: On discovering an ancient manuscript that suggests it is possible to travel to the centre of the earth, Professor Liedenbrock sets off for Iceland immediately. The narrator, his nephew, is less keen on the journey, believing that they will be suffocated by the heat of the interior world. The novel catalogues the ups and downs of the expedition. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre – A Classic. 

The first thing to say about this book is that it is very much a book of its time. Verne, like many other writers at the time, was clearly fascinated by the discovery of  dinosaur bones, fossils and the early theories about the different stages of man’s development. It may seem strange to us now, with the knowledge we have, but at the time it would have made more sense to readers.

The story takes a while to get started and it would certainly try the patience of younger readers, who might otherwise have been intrigued. 35% of the way into the text and we were still not underground. I’m not a big fan of the way modern novels often dive straight into the story without building character at all but this was the other extreme and I felt I waited a long time for things to get going.

The narrative voice was enjoyable. Axel clearly wasn’t enjoying his journey and his tendency to disagree with his uncle made for some interesting exchanges. He managed to get himself into trouble regularly and often despaired of getting out of their predicament alive. His melodrama was an excellent foil to the Professor’s stubborn determination.

My main problem with this book was the ending. It really stretched my ability to suspend my disbelief. You may say that the whole thing was beyond belief but it was possible to go along with it. It had a certain logic. However, the long ascent, and eventual eruption, of the volcano that rockets them back into the real world really was ridiculous and left me feeling a bit irritated. They also escaped death perhaps one time too many and often by coincidence rather than by any effort on their part.

I’m glad I read it though and would read more of Verne’s work. It makes me imagine what it must have been like at this point in history. These days, science fiction is often taken with the idea of technology and AI, it is interesting to think of what previous generations were interested in and worried about.

 

Top Ten Tuesday – Books that were disappointing but you are glad you read.

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together. This weeks topic is books that you hated but are glad that you read. I changed that to books that were disappointing as I hate very few books.

  1. The Japanese Lover – Isabelle Allende. It had been a long time since I had read any Allende when I read this last year. I was expecting some beautiful piece of magic realism akin to Eva Luna. This just a fairly average romance / family saga.
  2. Mockinjay – Suzanne Collins. What a disappointing end to the Hunger Games. There are no games, for a start. The whole thing dragged and the ending was corny. Made me wonder why I had bothered.
  3. The Well of Loneliness – Radclyffe Hall. I know it’s a classic and really important in the LGBT canon but it really was a struggle. Stephen was a hard heroine to like and it all seemed woefully old fashioned.
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James. To be fair, I was never expecting this to be good. But despite the fact that it is terrible, I am glad to have read it. It makes me feel a lot better about my own writing.
  5. The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough. How this has got itself onto all those books you must read before you die lists is beyond me. It’s badly written, the characters are superficial and it is far too long.
  6. Wonder – R. J. Palacio. This was underwhelming for me. I guess I just have no heart but this genuinely left me cold. It was extremely corny as well.
  7. The Insurgent Series – Veronica Roth. Not quite sure why I persevered with these books. They certainly didn’t get any better.
  8. The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling. Just not as good as Harry Potter.
  9. Hidden Figures: The UntoldStory of  the African American Women who Helped Win the Space Race – Margot Lee Shetterly – This was disappointing because I was expecting something different. I had just seen the film and thought that the focus might be the same but this starts much earlier and the focus is much broader. Not really what I was looking for.
  10. The Angel’s Game – Carlos Ruiz Zafron. I loved The Shadow of  the Wind and was very excited to read this. (Always going to lead to disappointment, being over-excited!) But this was not even in the same league. I haven’t bothered reading any further on in the series.

Full House Reading Challenge – It’s Not Me, It’s You – Jon Richardson

Genre: Humour, Autobiography

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2011

Format: kindle

Synopsis: Jon Richardson is looking for love. The only problem is will he be able to find someone who meets his exacting standards. When Richardson has lived with people before, it hasn’t ended well. Will his imminent date with waitress Gemma prove to be the romantic escape that he hopes?

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – genre: humour. 

This isn’t really an autobiography or if it is, it is very selective, covering as it does only a few days in Jon Richardson’s life. What it does do – and very well – is give an insight into his obsessive need for neatness in all aspects of his life.

It is extremely funny. Although at times I felt guilty laughing. Of course, there is likely to be an element of comic exaggeration but even adding that in to the mix, it felt more like tragedy then comedy at times. Of course, we all have those things that bug us. Every time you get on a bus or carry out a transaction in a shop, you are risking annoyance. However, few of us would go to the trouble of having a landline phone that no one knows the number to so they are not disturbed. Few of us are so anxious about a future relationship that they sabotage it before it even gets to the first date.

Richardson’s written style is very much like the voice of his stand up comedy and so was easy to read. Whilst ruminating on the possibility of his future relationship, he discusses what he feels are the elements of his personality that will affect his future. It is very intimate in places. It is like being inside his head and that is when it feels wrong to be laughing.

Of course, this book is quite old now and all the way through, I kept thinking how on earth is he coping with having a baby. But maybe I should have been thinking how is his wife coping with him and a baby.